Saturday, January 29, 2011

"We haven't had a good conversation ever since the land line," my mother says to me. The doorbell rang as I'm on the phone with her. The kid next door wants to borrow the snow shovel, walk out, show him, nudge him about putting it back. I go back to my indoor bike set-up, as I've been tapped to meet a buddy out sooner rather than later to catch some live music, and the conversation continues somehow distant, disjointed, rushed. Which is a very different feeling than when I'm in her company.

The shiny screen, yes, we see it more and more, and less and less the person, the poetry, the depth. We see only the glimpse ourselves in the shiny glowing mirror of technology. "Wow, that's cool," we say, "don't I look good. Everyone can see me." Like the crow we're drawn to the novelty, the speed, the gadgetry, on to the next thing.

Armed with our devices, we wander largely alone in the city as if it were a wasteland but for exactly what we wanted, braced to process the next blip on the screen, connecting on a real human level with few but the service people we encounter, the stranger at the grocery store check out. (But I must admit, I enjoyed listening to "If I Should Fall From Grace With God," riding out on the metro at the tail end of rush hour, the modern worker just kind of zonked out, schlepping home.) We treat the latter like a blind gift, glad they're kind to us, part of the deal, and they are woefully underpaid for the life's blood of humanity they provide. (Have they become our church? We attach our addled selves to them, like Lear holding on to the clown.)

Here I encounter my own vanity. I'm finally getting it, "the medium is the message." We don't realize we've lost all content down to the thinness of the screen. (We should have thought about that before completely wiring the classroom.) And any self-promoter, who does well in this environment, you have to look at them for the perfect creature of vanity and instant shallow soundbite they are, caring, in many cases, for little more than their own image. (Unlike some who are popular these days, great at getting their faces out there, Lincoln, who had a sense of the job he had to do, made speeches with substance with good structure and sense to them. Bravo to the current President for trying to do the same in the face of all the shiny mirror wavers, even if his gang sends me too many emails.)

Achh, the nerve under my eye is on the verge of starting to twitch again at the sight of the information super highway. I'm going to quit and go see if I can still read a passage of Moby Dick, or maybe a Thomas Hardy poem, 'No grain, no grain...' or take a walk in a stand of woods if it will still have me, or maybe just grocery shopping, something I need to do before the week starts, before the week starts. Or maybe call Mom, from my land line. Thanks for reading. Now go do something semi-real, if you can.

Or raise a shout against the perfect monolith of the screen and all its enchanted cold minions, "at least I am real," before being cut down for being human and imperfect.

Friday, January 28, 2011

King of the Beats, King of the Beats,
they all wanted to drink with him
and once they got the poor sensualist going,
happy to have company now, he would drink 'til he found the drunkenness he knew, a kind of freedom, a wild sensation.
But then the next day, depression,
the kind of deep worries, remembered sorrows, his failings looming over him,
part of the chemical addiction, the cycle.

The writing broke free of that cycle though, at least often enough, resetting his bearings and his calm and one gathers it was good for him on a physical molecular level, good for his nerves, his sense of self, his sense of a job, a profession, a place in the world. Phlebitis was his nervous system telling him he needed to write, just write, forget the other attempts of jobs, the scary hard physical stress of being a brakeman with Cassidy.

"Once I go out, I cannot stop," I think to myself sometimes, and writing is a job that requires you full time.

Maybe it was sad for him to be a writer, as few understood him as a real writer, except the crazies, the loners, the druggies, the drifters, the homosexual intellectual Russian Jew American (who even then upbraided him for going on too long if he really wanted to get published.) Books he wanted, craved, like the studiousness his letters speak of, well-read, not so much the need to be social, but of putting dreams and murmurings down on paper.

The human creature is gentle. It needs Zen quiet and peace, tea and broccoli.
Twenty years I've put up with the mad show, of people,
and no one seemed to appreciate the scholar, the serious learned heart and habit of the working class fellow from humble Canuck Lowell. Few scholars would have accepted him into their ranks, looked beneath a troublesome stereotype that might be somedays true. The same reason we like books with cases of mistaken identity. They fit on a writer.

I am a writer, it's what I do,
was what he knew,
with an ambition.
Slowly he built the objects
and lived in places that would be small museums
to himself and a time and a method,
an achievement
of letters.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Barman gets to end of week. Trudges home in snow, sleeps. A week of listening, being wine shrink, letting people talk, humoring whatever conversation comes along.

It's not so bad. Just that there's no one to talk to when you come home. No one around at 2 AM to humor your own problems, listen to your perceived problems. Like 'how come I feel like a BIG F-ing IDIOT being a writer/ how come I get taken as, like, the BIGGEST F-ing CREEP?' You go through enough hell just to be there enough to make what effort you can do toward it. And yes, writers may have become completely irrelevant, but try believing that in your own heart.

So you write, as a way of shrinking your own head. You try to work through that sense of creepiness to back to where it's honest and ennobling to write. That's the kind of lonesome straits you get in. Writing as a form of self-defense.

And sometimes at least, it works miracles, and you feel justified again. You are what you are, and didn't have the choice at birth not to be a writer.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Did Cervantes have a moment, looking at his career and his literary efforts, to ask himself, 'why all the depravation?' 'was that part of the deal?' Along came Quixote, as if to say ole Miguel had a sense of humor about it all, no longer young.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Ahh, the humor found in late night television.
On one channel, a rerun of David Gregory and his trickle-down minions giving the public what it wants enough for NBC to have its sunday morning market share, vociferating against the President with smug 'we know' grins; on another, Steven King's Children of the Corn. Chelsea Handler is becoming more a Buddha every day.

Well, they kept the front office's pet and got rid of Olbermann. The NY Post doesn't seem to like Olbermann either, doing their best to portray him as an elitist drunk.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Idiot America

The second fall after I graduated I went back to Amherst for homecoming. I was living in Washington, DC, working as a clerk for an HMO ( I thought I might use the university tuition benefit) by day, bussing tables at night. I flew to Boston, where my brother lived and took a bus out. I didn't have a pair of glasses and I'd run out of contacts. There was someone I wanted to see. That night, as I was about to cross the common to go the big party in one of the old frat houses I ran right into a bunch of guys I knew from my class. "C'mon," they said, and we all went to a bar. They made me do shots with them. I got free of them and made my way to the party, suddenly realizing I was drunk. The person I wanted to see was at the party. I saw her from a distance. I asked a friend of hers if it were her and what I got in return was a rather loud and insistent "Leave her alone." So there I was, having come a long way just to see someone, and that's pretty much how it went the rest of the time, 'til I got a ride back to Boston by the same guys who'd gotten me drunk drinking shots when there was a girl I wanted to see. Maybe there had been signals I missed, being near-sighted, the night after the first party, seeing Miss Leave Her Alone pass right by me, but I figured I'd made an idiot out of myself, and so I left Amherst, my old hometown, the place of my learning and erudition, the place of President Kennedy's great speech of the power and place of poetry a month before he died. It was cold and rainy when I got back to Boston and the house where my brother lived near Inman Square. And I had my history of being a jerk to think over. And whether or not one deserves to be forgiven, well, that's a good question, or maybe not.

My brother was going to the Kennedy School at the time. We went down to see a new movie a Guggenheim had made remembering JFK as it was in the latter part of November. We crowded into a small amphitheater and the movie proceeded. Old campaign footage from the early congressional and senatorial run, on up to the lively fellow being unloaded in a metal casket off of his plane, the numb awkwardness of his men lowering it off the lift into a Navy ambulance. And the next day I flew back to Washington and to my jobs and to Idiot America.

Being judged, if you didn't know, is a painful thing. You know you're being judged only because you're being judged. It's against your will. You want nothing to do with it. But it has its effect. You never wanted the stakes to be so, but somehow they got racheted up. "Wait, you're missing something," you want to say. "You've misunderstood my intentions, my style..." But, if you make some form of protest, you only get dragged in deeper.

My brother had an interesting thought the other day taking me out to dinner. He wondered if a JFK could ever be elected President in these times of Idiot America, quick to judge, quick to the negative, quick to take dislike to anyone of culture and learning and poetry, as those are regarded as weaknesses in times it seems "you gotta fight." JFK was elected (narrowly), he speculated, because of belief in the voting populous that they shared the experience of being a veteran of WWII with him. So he was palpable and even understandable and inspiring, just as his "Ask Not" was commemorated very recently. Fondly remembered, at least by some in our cynical selfish times. (The author of a book, Ask Not, interviewed on MSNBC by Chris Matthews, remembers grown men, veterans themselves, breaking into tears before the television.)

Idiot America, fostered so well by Ronald Reagan (himself a backlash against the excesses of the Free Speech Movement at Berkeley, and seeing perhaps too many of his own sins in the hippie culture afterward), has grown up quite remarkably and robustly in the years since. Seeds were planted. So we are quick to judge, quick to bully, quick to shout our own 'opinions' without the slightest sense of respect, and tarnish just about everything. (Even in my last years at Amherst, I didn't feel particularly supported and fostered by the highly-competitive exclusive world of specialized scholastic higher education enough to have much faith in their shelter.) Do we think anymore? Do we consider matters carefully, or do we just throw on thing after another, as if on a trash-heap?

I too can be blamed for dumbing things down, for not doing enough, not reading enough, not being part of the dialog and the process of the political. Maybe I am too dumbfounded by my exile to be efficacious. I hide in literary dreams.

But there most be hope. There must be belief in common sense and in the spirit of humanity. There must be some way that being cultured and aware of arts and literature and learning, of the kind found at the old public library, have a positive effect upon us, to 'make gentle the ways of man,' as RFK put it, quoting from the Ancient Greeks.

I wrote a book, yes, about a place called Amherst and the time when young people embrace learning, hopeful that it will stay with them as they go out into the world. It was a way of keeping a sense of poetry and careful thought alive, an expression of some hope that people would not be hasty to judge another.

Monday, January 17, 2011

When you write a book and finish it, as good as it is going to be finished, you expect something? Ahh, it will be enough of a success in the way of recognition that you will be better off, enough security to start a family. Hmm, how old am I? Did I sacrifice that for some silly idea? Uh oh.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Miranda Rights for Artists

Artists get their material from life experience. Fact is strange and interesting enough. Not surprising if a reader isn't taken in by a story of contrived events. Most of us know life as something lived daily and by routine and by long expanses of days involved with a job. We can understand a story even if nothing too drastic happens. We recognize life, as babies recognize faces.

Chekhov is certainly imaginative. Things do happen in his stories. But they seem as if they are things that, basically, happen to him. Credit him with a broad sensitivity, an ability to inhabit many skins, to be able to morph just a tick away from his own direct experience into a very plausible alternate. He gets things, like the suspicious doctor in Ward No. 6, or the various footman lackies who are spies on life and have sympathy for their mistresses, or the grown up loser who doesn't know what to do with himself in My Life, or the schoolboy in The Steppe, because they are available to him, parts of his own self. And so a great story, Lady with the Pet Dog, is a portrait very close to a self-portrait, one that simply occurs when different circumstances might befall the original self.

Oh, there's a long list. Caravaggio stuck his own face in paintings. Giotto took folks he knew, like the famous maker of an altarpiece that initially shocked the town when they looked up and saw themselves along with Jesus (I can't remember--Ghent? Krakow?)

Writers, artists, deserve to be extended a special kind of Miranda Rights. They need to be given the right to use real life, people and situations as raw material. Without a certain respect to look the other way when they make the sin of appropriating stuff from life we'd have far less good art to enjoy, even if it would deprive lawyers and moralizing gossipers from exercising their own art, even if it would seem to allow the door to open to 'lesser art,' that which is not created completely out of the blue as if by magical powers of imagination and observation.

So a writer runs the risk of being himself taken as a strange one, intruding, revealing too much that stiff collared folks would prefer to keep at bay out of propriety. Ted Hughes only allowed Birthday Letters to be published toward the end of his life when he could less be touched upon by the firestorm of commentary on personal matters between himself and another person who was his wife, Sylvia Plath. The poems are his art; what can you do, but accept them.

Updike, you have to give him credit for revealing his own self, those parts which are 'a bit dirty,' a story built around the tensions, the awkwardness of wanting things in the odd bargains and negotiations of living in society and with one's self.

It is, perhaps, an unenviable task, the artist's, to reveal the creature as he really is, those parts normally edited out of daily manners, as one does not talk about masturbation in public. It is the very nature of his work to reveal that which is real and sometimes uncomfortable to admit, just as Jesus--or for that matter, the Marquis de Sade--before him reveals that which is scorned as much as gloried. Through his work, though, the artist finds a certain vigor, a healthiness in the animal, the creature that is humanity/mankind.

Yes, my friends, reveal yourself, in a clever enough way, change the names and never admit to anything as far as what you've written.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

My friend and co worker, J., he's got a good political sense where I sleep sometimes. Wine tasting night the latest news comes up, the shooting in Tucson.

No one is commenting on how broken our society is. How do we let a kid buy a deadly weapon? How do we let this kid then buy an automatic clip? Here we are giving tax cuts to the richest when the bum he sees on his way to work might die tonight?

Sunday, January 9, 2011

A Martin D-28 is a difficult guitar to handle. Beautiful, but loud. The strings (the action, as the pros call it) are high. It booms. It's not a gut string. It lends itself to be played well by Elvis and Hank Williams and thin men drinking corn whiskey. It's an instrument you belt to, or over. The player doesn't hear it as well as someone standing ten feet away, just by the nature of sound waves. I could be wrong about all this, so, a healthy attitude is to play the thing, enjoy it, let it age, take good care of it. And when the wind is blowing right, you not only feel it, but you hear it, and it is an awesome instrument, related to the violin, something to played without any shyness.

A writer is often a musician. A writer is going to appreciate the four and a half minutes of Rainy Night in Soho. Such a performance is what we're all looking for when we write a passage. Does it move us? Does it sing? Does it have a hypnotic background rhythm reassuring so that we take it up, fall for it, love it, sing it. It's a song I've had faith in ever since I heard it. And when I played it for other people, I felt I risked Roman torture. It seems to have caught on, popularly, since those early Christian days when this barman could only get away with it on St. Patrick's Day.

Everyone now at a Pogues event can sing along with it. I don't blame... I join. And on You Tube, if you go back to the late eighties, you can find more or less original versions. Back when Mr. MacGowan was young and dapper. His mum a singer, and him too. A natural. A guy with a voice being natural. No wonder he can read about zen and samurai.

A writer will write a whole book trying to get that effect, of hearing such a song. The background chords, banjo tickling over, the appropriateness of chord change beneath a line like 'still there's a light I hold before me.' It's not something I can resist.

I know, it's juvenile to make a cross comparison, or to try to describe the effect of Shakespear, of a poem, of a moment in a literary thing in terms of another evocative wordy musical performance... And yet, MacGowan, backed by Pogues, and they backed by him, are the crown of our art.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

It's within human nature to, once started on something, try and get it to work. Anyone with a computer knows this. Cleaning one's apartment, organizing stuff, one knows it. Anyone in a relationship knows it.

There is a tendency in gay people to be artistic. They know something about themselves and their sexuality which sets them apart. The force of the inner knowledge of being gay is not unlike the understanding an artistic person has within them that makes choosing to be an artist a healthy thing. Hemingway didn't decide to be a writer; he simply knew he was one all along. It wasn't even a choice. In a way it's quite similar to the core understanding the Buddhists knock about: thou art that which is, and vice versa.

(Maybe it comes as no surprise that people take an artist for being 'different/gay.' But that isn't what the artist is really about. Granted, nothing is easy if one is poor, except, one supposes, love.)

So, along comes the self-understanding that is writing. Along comes the work habits, just as Hemingway often wrote about his work rhythms. It comes as no surprise that in studying people and life he explored the nature of creative habits, writing, for instance in the morning, stopping when it was still going along, then putting it down, not thinking about it anymore, letting 'the well replenish itself,' for the next day. Having a drink seemed to be a way of unwinding for him.

Does the writer's work then exist outside of society, a disinterested study that yet is natural for the human being to engage in?

It can sound like a juvenile discussion if one isn't careful.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

In life you pick sides. Oh, you might not mean to, but it happens. Naturally, consciously, unconsciously. Would you necessarily trust yourself as a college kid to make some of those choices? Well, why not? One thing leads to another.

The important thing is not to be down on yourself for those choices. You are, after all, in situations with other people who are making their own choices. Thus a certain anarchy, of people making their choices according to their own tastes, to the inside parts of their own heads and their own psychology, and what can you do? You find role models, and that's what helps.

Later on in life, you'll question yourself. You'll question those choices.

Why now, to be specific, did I chose Hemingway as a personal style of life and thought? Why not a more fruitful scholarly mode at that certain time when I might have had a choice? To the literary scholar, it's like, 'come on, there's so much more than Hemingway, like Andrew Marvell, Dryden, Keats, Larkin, Eliot, Matthew Arnold, etc. etc. etc. ... why be a dolt and pick some man who writes sentences like an ogre?... How uninteresting. How sort of "stereotypical," the sort of rot that comes out of him, the bravado... "The horse smelled the water" Christ, who gives a turd?'

And then you can go on living apologizing for your basic biology and life rhythms. You can conclude that your whole way of living isn't valid. This is not helpful. You are who you are. You live in ways that work for you. And, let's face it, you want to write, and there are certain ways to go about doing it, and doing so makes you feel satisfied. And after that feeling, well, then you can go and face and interact.

Buddha, completely, doesn't really seem the complete answer. There's still a you. The you has ways of functioning, habits.

What's most funny is the resistance you encounter. The complete misunderstanding on the parts of other people towards you, really, quite shamefully so, as if they expected you to be a completely different person than who you are, like they wanted you to change the color of your skin.

You can doubt your own self for only so long, and never sustained. Light cracks out. You remember yourself. You wake, and feel good.